Australia has voted No to the Voice to Parliament. Overwhelmingly. In all states, and in the Northern Territory, the majority voted against a constitutionally-enshrined advisory body representing First Nations people in parliament. Apart from the specific proposal it presents, the referendum asked Australians a moral question: “how seriously do you take your obligations as settlers on this land? How seriously do you take First Nations people and their wishes?”
It asked Australians — settlers living in a country built upon the dispossession of First Nations land — what is Australia? In voting to reject the Voice, Australians have shown that they plainly do not know. They have shown that they do not take the history of this country seriously. They have shown that they are blind to the colonial violence which underpins this country and, further, ignorant to the ongoing suffering of First Nations people.
Fifteen years after Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations, thirty-one years after Mabo, and more than two hundred years after colonisation began, Australians have once again proven that they do not take the struggle of First Nations peoples seriously. They have once again said that which they have always said to First Nations people: “you are not welcome here.”
It is not enough to say that this is merely an Australia which has been misled. Much of the discourse around the referendum result will rightfully focus on the culture war deliberately stoked by the No campaign. However, the reality is that this country needs to face is its collective apathy toward First Nations issues — an apathy which defaults to racism.
The truths of genocide and dispossession are never confronted or acknowledged in this conceptualisation — to do so would be for the nation to reckon with the brutality of our history, to invite uncomfortability in examining how they benefit as settlers. Instead, settlers opt for the cruellest form of laziness.
This much is clear in the arguments of the No campaign. “If you don’t know, vote No” tells Australia that it is okay not to care about First Nations people. The claim that the Voice is “divisive” says that it is better for First Nations people to be persistently disadvantaged than to do anything about it — because to do something about it would be to accept that not everyone is equal in this country. The claims that the Voice is “risky”, “legally flawed”, or that there is “not enough detail” have been so thoroughly debunked that they can only be described as excuses. The claim that “some Indigenous people oppose the Voice” is ignorant of the fact that a clear majority of Indigenous people do not. Another excuse.
Australia said: “I don’t want to vote Yes, because there is nothing in it for me.”
Talking heads will blame the failure of this simple proposal on the number of volunteers door knocking, the calls made, the pamphlets handed out. They will craft strategic reasons for why this referendum has been defeated, obfuscating the crux of the reason behind its failure: an indifference to the racism which lies at the heart of Australia.
Right-wing politicians, and proponents of White Australia more broadly, have always harnessed this underlying racism. It is racism that festers in the backyard heat, the cruel malaise of electing governments who run on platforms of turning back the boats, shirtless men spewing hate speech at Cronulla Station, solutions which force spit hoods over the heads of black kids. This lies at the very foundation of who is included in the collective imagining of Australian nationhood.
We are a nation who voted No. This process delivered nothing for First Nations people. This referendum is another chip in the mosaiced facade that tells us we can achieve change through the establishment.
Though Honi vehemently supported the Yes campaign, and outlined our reasons for doing so multiple times, ultimately racism and fear has triumphed — and it’s not the first time. We must seek a new way forward if we are to further the rights of First Nations people.
As always, mainstream media coverage has failed the marginalised. NewsCorp has opposed the Voice at every turn; its chokehold over politics in Australia never tires. Other media outlets have attempted to show a balance between the Yes and No campaigns, particularly the purported “balance” between First Nations people who support a Yes vote and those who did not support the referendum — 80% of First Nations people supported the Voice.
Objectivity has long been upheld as the gold standard of journalism, but it is easily invoked to privilege the status quo and naturalise the views of those in power. The Australian media landscape has abandoned truth in favour of appearing well-balanced, while established power structures continue to oppress First Nations people and all those who fall outside the white, male, cisgendered norm. Our national broadcaster should be accountable for legitimising the platform of a university student who is unrepresentative of her peer’s views, with no qualifications, in a misguided attempt at “balance”.
With the proliferation of divisive rhetoric from the No campaign, our democracy will be tested as Dutton and his ilk continue to incite culture wars as political strategy. With challenges to the validity of the electoral process, and a relitigation of the history wars, the Voice debate saw American-style polarisation. For Dutton and the Liberals, the Voice is only the beginning.
The Voice to Parliament offered Australia a chance to recognise First Nations people, and a step towards treaty and truth-telling. It was a modest proposal, to the point where many First Nations activists rejected it for not going far enough — and yet, it failed. All year, activists have debated whether any good can come from engaging with the parliamentary process in order to improve outcomes for First Nations people. The Voice referendum has shown that electoralism fails, especially when supercharged with the ignorance of the Australian public. With few avenues for protest remaining in an increasingly repressed society labouring under draconian anti-protest laws, activists and campaigners will need to take stock of their campaigns and invest their energy where it counts: with grassroots First Nations activists.
White Australia marched forward on Saturday. It barely had to try.